Freedom To Read!


In Castro’s Cuba . . . there were no newspapers, except official ones. No books, except those sanctioned by the regime . . . Jails filled with prisoners—from those who violently opposed the regime to those who simply dared speak out.

“Fidel Castro,” American Experience, PBS, January 31, 2005

The American Library Association opposes any efforts that result in closing any path to knowledge.

Governing council of the American Library Association (which nonetheless has refused to demand immediate release of imprisoned independent Cuban librarians), January 19, 2005

There are individual American librarians who have written letters to Fidel Castro, asking him to release the dissenters he has sentenced to 20 years and more in his gulag. By now, among those imprisoned are more than a dozen independent librarians.

In a story by Kevin Sullivan in the February 14, 2004, Washington Post, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reported that about half of these prisoners are in ” ‘punishment cells’ about three feet wide and six feet long, have no windows, little ventilation, and no running water. Prisoners are subjected to extreme heat in the summer and year-round infestation by insects and rats.”

The letters to Castro fromAmerican librarians—who cannot understand why their national governing council has abandoned their fellow librarians in Cuba—have not been answered. And, as reported here last week, only one U.S. public library, in Vermillion, South Dakota, has sponsored and begun to send books to a sister independent library in Havana. That decision has been hailed by library associations in other countries.

This reverberating act of simple decency was started by one person, Mark Wetmore, vice president of the Vermillion library’s board of trustees. Wetmore tells me that his impetus for bringing freedom to read to Cuba came from reading my columns here on Castro’s brutish repression. But it was Wetmore who actually did something that has brought increased international attention to those prisoners in the three-foot-wide and six-foot-long cells.

Jack Powell, a fellow trustee of the Vermillion library, told the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, South Dakota: “[Mark] kept us on task during all our discussions, kept coming back to the fact that the issue of freedom of access to information was the core concern. As a board, we’re happy to be collectively doing this, and we hope other libraries will follow our lead.”

Says Wetmore, who shows that one person can begin to strike back at a dictator: “It diminishes all our libraries a little if we know that there are people being persecuted for trying to operate free, uncensored ones and we don’t try to do something about it.” (Emphasis added.)

Wetmore keeps on keeping on. He has now written a guide, Sponsoring an Independent Cuban Library, that lays out “the steps a library board in this country” can take to join this freedom caravan. In it he tells, with specificity, how the Vermillion Public Library learned how to do it—and much more, including how to ship books to Cuba, and what it costs. (Librarians in other countries have been adding to the shelves of the independent libraries since the Castro crackdown.)

Wetmore says, “I would be happy to correspond or visit with anyone about Vermillion’s experience sponsoring an independent Cuban library.” Mark Wetmore can be reached at 605.624.3738; his e-mail is

His guide begins: “As a board, trustees should educate themselves on the issues involved . . . first, the history and current situation of the independent libraries in Cuba, the debate within the American Library Association on the subject and the ALA’s current position.

“Trustees need to discuss sponsorship thoroughly among themselves, and with the library director. Unanimity isn’t necessary at the beginning of the discussion, only a willingness to consider sponsorship and what it stands for. At least one trustee needs to take the initiative to bring information to the board and keep the discussion alive to the point of a definitive decision . . .

“The Cuban independent libraries exist in a narrow, fluctuating space between government repression and toleration for the sake of international public relations. The Cuban government does seem to care what the world thinks and to some extent is susceptible to world opinion.[Emphasis added.]

“Primary goals can be first, to provide one-on-one, personal moral support and solidarity to the brave people running an independent Cuban library; and second, to add to the movement in this country to follow many European cities and library organizations in demanding freedom for jailed Cuban librarians and freedom for all intellectual pursuits in Cuba . . .

“There have been no negative implications for us [at the Vermillion library]. None. All of the press coverage and local feedback has been positive . . . [and] has enhanced local awareness and appreciation of VPL and has actually strengthened us . . . in the community.”

Enthusiastically supporting the Vermillion Public Library is Anna Maulina, president of the Library Association of Latvia, in Riga. Speaking for “Eastern Europeans who have experienced Communism,” she says: “I hope that the time will come for Cuba to become a real isle of freedom where free song will flow over free valleys, where no librarian or any other person will be arrested for disseminating information.”

How inspiring it would be if the world-renowned New York Public Library and its president, Paul Leclerc, would join the small Vermillion Public Library in South Dakota to further circulate stories and songs of freedom by sending books—and encouragement—to the Cuban independent libraries. Many of the multicultural users of New York’s library system would be proud of its flagship center and its lions guarding the freedom to read.